The story of the rolling suitcase shows how sexism can distort the economy
- A new essay in The Guardian highlights how rolling suitcases have been undermined by gender roles.
- Suitcases have been considered coded by women for years, keeping them away from the mainstream.
- The anecdote shows how systemic biases shape our economy.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
Today, rolling suitcases are the mainstay of moving walkways, duty-free shops and business commuters who pace over the phone. But while it’s obvious rolling a suitcase is easier on your arms than carrying it, they’re still a relatively recent addition to the mainstream.
It’s strange, however, because they’ve been around for a long time.
A test in the Guardian by Katrine Marçal argues that the product has withstood widespread adoption for decades due to sexism. Women rolled suitcases for decades before the actual product was officially “invented” in 1972, reports Marçal, writing that there was a “non-manly” association with the product. It also ran into another gender norm: men had to carry luggage on behalf of everyone. Luggage was not seen by society as something that should ease the burden on women traveling alone, writes Marçal.
Eventually, as Marçal recounts, solo travel by women became more ubiquitous in the 1980s – and a new design in 1987 kind of made the rolling suitcase safe for men, too.
The anecdote shows how what is seen as the traditional cycle of the economy – products meeting demand and consumers purchasing them – cannot be separated from perceptions of gender roles and other systemic exclusions. In the case of the rolling suitcase, men have for years gone without a more useful device, for no other reason than bias. But economic history has more serious repercussions than the aching arms of similar examples of prejudice.
For example, women are around 70% more likely to be seriously injured or die in a car crash, Rachel Premack from the insider reported in 2019. It may be a coincidence, but the female crash test dummies were not used until 2003, and when American automakers introduced this dummy, she was only five feet tall and weighed 110 pounds. .
Beyond automotive safety, many consumer products are designed without thinking of women, Nicola Erdmann and Sophia Ankel reported in 2019. For example, many smartphones are too small for women’s hands – and Apple, which has been particularly criticized for over-bulky iPhones, hasn’t included menstrual tracking in its health app for several years.
While men can and do use wheeled suitcases today, prejudices may persist in shaping the economy, and who has access to certain products. As Insider’s Isobel Asher Hamilton reported, algorithmic bias goes beyond applications that depixelize colored faces into white faces; the main facial recognition software is less skillful to identify darker faces and female faces. This type of software has been used in law enforcement – a practice that has been reduced over the past year following protests against racist police brutality (and after years of advocacy by activists).
One wonders what economic progress is being left behind at the moment, simply because of the perception of gender roles?